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High court needs to make amends for its indecision


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 16, 2000

One of the crapshoots of Florida politics today is whether the state Supreme Court will allow a petition from the citizens to reach the ballot.

The seven justices have careened back and forth in such cases. They collide with each other like Keystone Kops. They set a precedent, then contradict it.

Maybe this is not entirely the court's fault.

Maybe our state Constitution is not clear enough when it says that proposed amendments have to deal with a "single subject."

Maybe our state law, which says that ballot language has to be "clear," is not clear enough either.

At any rate, the poor Supreme Court flops around like a catfish on a pier.

The latest example is the court's ruling on Oct. 3 that we WILL vote in November on whether to build a high-speed train in Florida.

Mind you, this is an amendment to the Constitution. The Constitution is the document that sets up our basic government. It says we have a governor. A Legislature. A Supreme Court.

And, by gum, if this amendment passes, then Article X, Section 19 of our Constitution will say that we gotta have a really fast choo-choo, too.

To be specific, Amendment No. 1 on the ballot would require a "monorail, fixed guideway or magnetic levitation system, capable of speeds in excess of 120 mph."

This amendment flies in the face of the Supreme Court's own requirement than an amendment not "substantially alter or perform" the function of multiple branches of government.

The Supreme Court has bounced previous petitions for less. The best example is from 1997, when the court threw out a citizens' petition that would have required 40 percent of the state budget to go to education.

The court ruled in that case that the amendment took away the Legislature's "discretion in making value choices ... among the various vital functions of state government." Also, the governor would be unable to veto any part of the education budget if it dropped the total below 40 percent.

"In sum, we conclude that the proposed amendment does substantially affect more than one function of government and multiple provisions of the Constitution," the court ruled then.

Now let us return to the present. This train amendment alters the functions of all three branches of government. It requires the legislative branch to write the budget a certain way. It strips the executive of its veto power in this one, solitary area. Presumably, it also hamstrings the power of the judicial branch itself when it comes to ruling against choo-choos.

A triple play! And yet, six justices of this court concluded that:

... we do not find this to be the type of "precipitous" or "cataclysmic" change prohibited by the single subject restriction. Such a restriction, unlike the adequate public funding amendment, would not in any event "substantially alter" the governor's powers or "perform multiple functions of government."

Only one justice, Major Harding, admitted that the emperor was naked. This amendment, he wrote, "explicitly direct(s) more than one branch of government to act or refrain from acting . . ." He concluded this was exactly the type of "fatal flaw" that defeated the school funding amendment.

I thought the court was wrong in 1997, so maybe I should be happy we get to vote on trains now. But this inconsistency is no way to run a democracy, let alone a railroad.

Today, more than two years before the 2002 general election, and well in advance of the next session of the Legislature, let's start considering a constitutional amendment to fix our problem with these constitutional amendments -- assuming, of course, that the Supreme Court would let us vote on one.

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